Certain digestive disorders and food sensitivities or allergies have been connected to autism. There is no known causation between autism and the digestive issues as many children who are not on the spectrum experience the same problems. What is different is that, changes in diet that affect digestion and food allergies or sensitivities in children with autism also seem to impact the children’s overall moods and behaviors as well.
That seems like common sense, too. A child with autism who also has Celiac’s disease is often in pain with lots of abdominal discomfort. He or she will act out, or strike out, like a wounded animal, when feeling the pain associated with the disease. Or, the child may retreat from public situations or family surroundings, have trouble or regression with toilet training, or refuse to eat. Changing to a gluten free diet, which is the common solution for any person with Celiac’s, not only alters the symptomology, but the behaviors associated with them.
Another digestive disorder, rare, but found in early childhood, is phenylketonuria. Patients who suffer from this disorder are unable to process the chemical, phenylalanine. If left untreated, it causes mental retardation as well as physical delays, almost mimicking autism and a few other developmental disorders. Since its discovery in the late eighties and early nineties, most PKU children have been tested with a small blood draw right at birth that confirms or denies that they have the disease. If a child tests positive for PKU, a diet prescribed by a pediatric dietician begins right away. Children can’t consume soda pop or anything else with PKU as an ingredient, which means parents have to do a lot of label reading and are given a list of common foods that contain it. Breastfeeding mothers can’t have anything with PKU in it either, as it will transfer through the breast milk to the baby. In children who have been diagnosed with autism and PKU, the change in diet is dramatic enough to show improvements in their position on the spectrum itself.
Crohn’s disease, lactose intolerance, and irritable bowel syndrome are all lower GI problems that cause a wide range of symptoms from diarrhea to constipation, extremely painful bloating and gas, and vomiting. Autistic children who are verbal can tell their parents what hurts and how they feel, but non-verbal children can only display what’s going on inside. In each of these diseases, the GI tract is unable to process certain types of foods or enzymes related to those foods. Dairy is a common food group necessary to a child’s physical growth, but if they have a disease that doesn’t allow them to process it without excruciating discomfort and upper and lower GI symptoms, they are going to do everything they can to let their parents know that they don’t like how they feel.
Whatever the disease or disorder, parents who are in tune to their children are able to catch it early. Diet changes can begin immediately, and under a pediatrician’s care, they can continue. Parents should keep a log of symptoms and their improval rate once the offending foods are removed, e.g., milk, wheat and/or gluten, etc. Concerns for nutrition can be discussed with a pediatrician who will suggest that a multivitamin without the offending ingredients be used to supplement the autistic child’s diet.
In addition to nutritional diet changes, children with autism prefer bland foods. This sometimes makes it very difficult to get them to eat things they should, such as fish and eggs, which produce strong odors. Although getting them to eat the food is more important, when it can’t be done providing them with vitamin and mineral supplements is the second best thing. Fish oil has proven to be extremely effective for the altered brains of people with autism, dementia and Alzheimer’s. Most autistic children won’t go near a piece of fish, let alone eat it, so fish capsules swallowed are the recommended substitute. (They now make fish oil capsules that are odor free, which should help!) Green leafy vegetables also seem to be something kids with autism avoid, and that leaves them without the right amounts of vitamins A, K, E, and C, as well as iron. Meats with a high iron content, like liver, are not going to get past them either, so vitamin and mineral supplements that contain these are essential. Kids who are willing to eat a banana at least every other day will have enough potassium, or vitamin K, in their diets, but iron only comes from dark leafy greens and liver, as does vitamins A and E.
Helping their brains with either the right “brain” foods or supplements also helps autistic children with their moods and behaviors. Limiting sugar, as any parent with children would and should, has a more dramatic impact on the child with autism. It’s not that they can’t have it, they just should have it in much smaller quantities than their peers. Correcting any digestive issues or diseases with diet also impacts them in a big way. It’s a lot for any parent to break down the dietary needs of their children with autism, but once parents get into the routine of it, it becomes second nature. Sometimes altering the whole family’s diet to match that of the autistic child actually makes the other members healthier for it, which isn’t a bad thing either.
Other, rarer digestive diseases have diet restrictions that must be followed. Not following the diets closely can have serious repercussions, even death. Parents who think their children with autism might have some digestive issues co morbid with the autism can ask a pediatrician for dietary suggestions and changes to see if it would help. Again, keeping a journal of before and after symptoms and behaviors in children with autism who have dietary changes made for them can support any possible reason for further testing in a doctor’s office.